Reputation, value and trust – avoiding a disaster?

Local Government Reputation is important. How a local authority handles an emergency planning issue, such as a fire at a block of flats it owns, can impact on public perception for a long time. Communication is an important aspect of managing any disaster. A social service’s bad news story can also crystallise public perceptions of a local Council. It’s not just about the performance of local politicians; public perceptions can vastly impact on staff morale and the ability to recruit staff to help improve future performance.

As if that is not a tough enough agenda to drive forward in the good times, local authorities now face severe challenges in an era when budgets will be a lot tighter.

Today’s Budget may see the announcement of a tough spending round, with the possibility of a second budget in two months with even tougher proposals, whoever is in power at national level after the General Election.

PR Week reports on recent LGA research showing that 66% of Council comms heads are calling for a refreshed LGA Reputations Campaign to focus on value for money. This makes sense as, due to the economic constraints, the next few years will be the first time in more than a decade that local authorities will, individually and collectively, need to communicate to the public the fact that services will have to be funded according to strict prioritisation. There will also, however, be positive opportunities to develop new ways of working through VFM programmes such as Total Place. All of this will cause uncertainty to both staff and members of the public.

People are, in the main, often risk averse and resistant to change: they will value keeping what they have over the possibility of gaining more. The recent Cabinet Office Mindspace study on behaviour discusses this. However, due to various levels of motivation and self-efficacy, different people will see the coming changes very differently, perceiving opportunities, threats or a mixture. It will not be possible, as it might have been in the past, for local authorities to rely on consensus and an ‘average’ view when seeking to communicate challenges to communities.

Reputation management entails far more than a ‘one size fits all’ communications process. The decline of the local news media and the rise of new media, including but not limited to internet-based media, leads to a multiplicity of information, as intimidating to some as it is stimulating to others. Though some people are very well informed, more and more people are seeking information and corroboration of their opinions from trusted sources like their friends and neighbours – not necessarily the people who appear on the Council press officer’s mailing list!

Against this background, there are new solutions emerging. We can now segment the public more effectively, not only to show how people behave, but also why they behave the way they do as a result of their underlying values.

For example, a Council wishing to communicate value for money issues – and perhaps suggesting that the community might be able to do their bit through forms of co-production and choice – needs to know that different segments of the community will potentially have widely divergent responses to this message according to their values and worldview. 30% of the people might be broadly supportive because of the potential for improved quality and value of services. 40% may be broadly indifferent to the new approach, feeling that they have the tools to involve themselves should they wish to. The final 30% of thee community may be anchored in values that lead them to see the proposals as a threat and may look to scapegoat “others” for any perceived unfairness. Thus, what might be a well-communicated campaign on value for money and reputation may lead to further challenges on the community cohesion front if it is not communicated in a nuanced way.

Building trust is the cornerstone to improved reputation, and is increasingly achieved through:

  • Segmented messaging to ensure all segments in the population actually hear what the Council is saying without dismissing it out of hand
  • Recognising the vital role of staff in communicating reputation and trust through empathetic “effective conversations” training
  • Building engagement with trusted sources in the community through “community communicator” schemes: forging a relationship between the Council and communities that may have strong views on unfairness, have the greatest disaffection and the lowest levels of trust.

Whether it is managing the aftermath of an emergency planning disaster, communicating value for money, or building long-term reputation: if the local authority is prepared to put in the work to earn authentic local trust, it can work with its local community to overcome those challenges.

Charlie Mansell is Research and Development Officer for The Campaign Company.

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